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3 tips to address outdoor worker safety during harsh winter weather

Metropolitan areas across the U.S. saw temperatures drop to historic lows during the first week of 2018, as frigid Arctic air circulated through the Midwest and Northeast, according to data from the Southeast Regional Climate center published on the Weather Channel. With lows falling below zero, families forewent the outdoor activities usually associated with winter for safety reasons. However, many workers braved the dangerous temperatures and wind chills to perform critical tasks, risking their health to keep utilities up and running or roads clear. It is likely such work will be required again over the next two months. With this in mind, businesses with extensive outdoor workforces should prepare their workers for the frigid cold.

Here are three of the most effective strategies for keeping employees safe as they navigate harsh winter weather:

1. Help workers understand the risks
Employees who regularly work outdoors may not fully understand the dangers that come with navigating cold temperatures and freezing precipitation, considering such climatological phenomena merely nuisances and nothing more. Environmental health and safety stakeholders should address this misconception immediately, as even winter weather that may seem mild can cause serious injury. How can safety leaders accomplish this goal? Informing workers about common conditions brought on by exposure to harsh winter weather is a good start.

Most of such illnesses stem from one particular condition called cold stress, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. This sickness develops as the body temperature falls, resulting in external and internal damage. Well-known wintertime afflictions such as frostbite, hypothermia and trench foot are advanced forms of cold stress that require sometimes extreme treatments such as amputation.

"Well-known wintertime afflictions such as frostbite, hypothermia and trench foot are advanced forms of cold stress."

When workers understand the seriousness of these conditions, they are more likely to act safely outdoors and return to headquarters unscathed.

2. Employ engineering controls
EHS professionals everywhere use engineering controls to protect workers executing manual tasks, and they can do the same to protect them from environmental hazards, including the extreme cold. OSHA advises businesses to purchase and deploy radiant heaters, which keep employees warm as they work in low temperatures. Personal protection equipment is also effective, as layered uniforms, insulated socks and waterproof footwear can keep out the cold air and moisture, while bolstering body heat retention, according to the National Safety Council.  

3. Address service vehicles and driving
Employees working in outdoor conditions use trucks and other service vehicles to get to remote locations. It is imperative that EHS Management teams address these modes of transportation when working to improve wintertime operational practices. All service vehicles should be inspected regularly to ensure that they are reliable in cold weather and will not break down en route, possibly stranding drivers and passengers, according to OSHA. They should also include emergency supplies in the event that mechanical problems do occur. 

Finally, businesses must encourage safe driving practices as the probability of accidents increases during the winter when roads are covered in frozen precipitation or broken down due to the prolonged application of caustic melting chemicals.

In addition to implementing these strategies, businesses should bolster backend injury tracking practices to ensure newly-implemented safety measures actually work. Here at ProcessMAP, we craft industry-leading Environmental Health and Safety software that facilitates such visibility. Contact us today to learn more about our products and how they can help keep your workers safe, no matter the season.

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